Yvette Stanley, our National Director for Social Care, discusses how our children’s services inspections are working.
In 2018, we introduced a new approach to inspecting local authority children’s services (ILACS). With any new framework, it’s important that we take stock and evaluate. So for the last year, we’ve been reviewing how the inspections are working, and whether we’re delivering them effectively and how we intended. Today, we published our findings.
We set out to replace the single inspection framework (SIF) with something much more risk-based. A proportionate approach that responds to a local authority’s individual circumstances. Most importantly, an approach which focuses on the quality and impact of social work practice on vulnerable children’s lives. Based on our evaluation, I’m confident that we’ve done just that.
The review was carried out by Ofsted’s research and evaluation team, which sits outside of social care. We also commissioned work from the University of Birmingham. The research and evaluation team took an objective look at how ILACS inspections have been working on the ground. As well as in-depth analysis of inspection evidence and data, they spoke to Directors of Children’s Services (DCS) across each of Ofsted’s 8 regions and carried out survey and focus groups with our inspectors.
Above all, ILACS works. The team found that ILACS is a more proportionate and efficient inspection system than what went before, a view also supported by the DCSs they spoke to.
The review shows that the sector welcomes ILACS and that the consensus is that it’s rigorous, but fair. This reflects what many of you have said directly to me. You also told us that our reports are clear, concise and helpful.
The introduction of non-judgement focused visits has been positively received. Feedback shows they give local authorities a good indication of the progress they are making and help them to move to the next stage of their action plans.
The new inspections are far more practice-focused. Again, this is something that has been well received by the sector. Inspectors now spend much more time talking to social workers about their cases and what they do day to day, rather than just looking at records.
Like the social care providers we inspect, our inspectors are never backwards in coming forward with feedback! Moving from the ‘one-size-fits all’ 4-week SIF to short and standard inspections, supported by focused visits and annual engagement meetings, has been a big shift for our inspectors too. But they also told us that they’re confident in the new approach.
The challenge of short inspections
As we said when we launched ILACS, we always knew short inspections of good and outstanding local authorities were going to be our greatest challenge.
The most important message about short inspections is that our judgements are secure. The review looked closely at evidence across a range of inspections, so that we can be absolutely assured of the grades we’ve given.
Feedback from the sector is that they are tough, and certainly intense, because they happen over a shorter timeframe. This reflects what our inspectors told us too. But we firmly believe that they are the right way forward. The review shows that we’re managing a thorough inspection of your services despite the shorter timescale, even in the bigger authorities. It also confirms that our judgements are consistent and reliable.
What could we do better?
Of course, there’s always room for improvement. We’ve already made a number of the recommended changes along the way in response to your feedback and our learnings. We’ll also be taking forward some of the report’s recommendations over the coming months.
One of the ways we’re improving ILACS is by deploying slightly larger teams in the largest local authorities, while reducing the team in the smaller places. This fits in with our aim of being proportionate and also takes into account feedback from inspectors.
Our inspections have been enriched by adding a school’s specialist Her Majesty’s Inspector (HMI) and a social care regulatory inspector to evaluate things like: the educational progress of children in care; children missing education; those electively home educated; and how well adoption and fostering services are working. But we’ve listened to our inspectors and think we can go even further by making sure these colleagues have more time to plan ahead of inspection.
Academic partners from the University of Birmingham have rightly challenged us about consistency of practice (what people-based organisation does not need to keep a close eye on consistency!?) and how we can make sure that inspections really capture the voice of the child.
We’ll continue to explore how we hear from children. But what is most important is that we can see that children’s views are heard and are appropriately acted on. I get a real sense of what children have experienced through the many inspection reports I read. This is so important.
Many of you have raised concerns about the burden that more frequent inspection ‘events’ bring. I want to reassure you we are alive to this. In year one, we needed to visit to inform our risk-based approach and as we have done so our focused visits have reduced accordingly. We’re working closely with other teams in Ofsted and other inspectorates to schedule inspections as thoughtfully as possible.
I want to thank everyone who has contributed to this thorough and helpful evaluation. We’re on solid ground as we support further improvement in an already improving sector. A sector that is working well amid very challenging circumstances. It’s been fantastic to celebrate outstanding practice and I think we have ‘caught’ some areas ‘before they fell’ too. This is absolutely what we set out to do with ILACS.
Both my team and our research and evaluation colleagues are already starting to plan our next ‘look’ at ILACS, which will consider what impact it has had on practice in local authority children’s services – more of that in the New Year.
Yvette Stanley is Ofsted's National Director for Social Care. Follow Yvette on Twitter. Keep up-to-date with social care news at Ofsted by signing up for email alerts. You can also follow Ofsted on Twitter.